The Added Pollution Potential of PPE Waste

Image: Anna Shvets   

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on human health, the waste produced by our response to it is posing immense risks to the health of our environment as well,  Talib Visram reported for Fast and Company. According to Visram, the “flood of PPE could cause immediate danger to wildlife and long-term plastic pollution that threatens to contaminate food supplies.” Already, masks, hand sanitizers, and gloves are being discovered during beach cleanup efforts from France to Hong Kong. While, of course, this is still anecdotal evidence, this is a “signal of a global problem to come.”

At a time when we’re on track to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, the waste entering the environment as a result of the pandemic is compounding the already urgent ocean plastic pollution crisis.

Why This Matters: This certainly does not mean we should stop using PPE, especially during such an immense public health crisis. But we must remember that environmental health is imbricated in public health. We need a better waste management system if we are to protect vulnerable people and ecosystems. As a spokesperson for Opération Mer Propre, an ocean cleanup group, told Fast Company, currently PPE items account only for “5% of total waste collected during these recent dives, but we ‘wish to alert the world that that could become 80% if we do nothing.”


The Pitfalls of PPE: Currently, most masks are made from plastic materials that last for “decades to hundreds of years.” These discarded masks are harmful to both people and animals, as they “may risk spreading coronavirus to waste collectors, litter pickers, or members of the public who first come across the litter.” Beyond risks to human health, discarded PPE masks can profoundly harm biodiversity. Sea turtles can become asphyxiated and die from ingesting latex gloves, which resemble jellyfish. Plastic waste, as The Conversation noted, can “smother environments and break up ecosystems” just due to its sheer mass. This plastic can even end up in our food, as it is eaten by fish and plankton.

As Marie Fazio wrote for the New York Times wrote last month,”the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the general public wear reusable cloth face coverings, but disposable masks are readily available; a pack of 50 can be purchased for around $30.” Since there was so much confusion initially on the part of the general public about which masks were effective (or if they were at all), officials lost precious time to encourage the use of more sustainable cloth masks. Now that people have gotten into the habit of using single-use surgical masks, it will be more difficult to curb this waste from making its way into the environment.

Moving Forward: Many groups extol the benefits of reusable masks, and claim the solution is simply not to litter. But this is a structural issue, and requires a structural, not solely individual, solution. That means, alongside initiatives to educate the public on the perils of plastic, we need better waste management systems to prevent plastics from ending up in our ocean. As Gary Stokes of OceansAsia noted to the Guardian, lightweight masks may be being carried from landfills by the wind. This must be averted with better waste management practices, alongside investment in educational and access efforts to lessen the use of plastics, to begin with.



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